BEIRUT (Reuters) - The future of a U.N. monitoring mission in Syria hangs in the balance after the observers halted work following several attacks on their convoys - but many Syrians lost faith weeks ago in their ability to help stem the bloodshed.
Expectations were high, many say too high, for some 300 unarmed men and women in blue berets who were sent in April to monitor a ceasefire agreement in a country of more than 23 million that was spiralling into civil war.
Resentment grew quickly as hopes were quashed.
The Syrian government had declared that the monitors would confirm the uprising to be a foreign conspiracy by showing up the opposition as terrorist thugs, and was quickly disappointed.
The white Toyota Land Cruisers, emblazoned with “UN” in large black letters, became regular targets for rocks thrown by pro-government residents and gunfire from unknown assailants.
The United Nations said a convoy trying to reach the town of Haffeh, the scene of heavy fighting, had been turned back by crowds who lashed out with metal rods. Amateur video posted on the Internet last week showed men carrying pictures of President Bashar al-Assad whacking the cars with sticks.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told Reuters that the cars were later fired on. U.N. video showed one of the Toyotas with bullet marks at head height in the bullet-proof glass of the front and back passenger windows. It seems the assailants were shooting to kill.
A prominent pro-Assad actor posted a call on Facebook for loyalists near Haffeh to block the road in front of the monitors, whom he called traitorous spies, as they were trying to save “the sons of terrorist whores (rebels) from the grip of our brave army”.
There is no doubt that some of the monitors’ reports have embarrassed Damascus.
While investigating a massacre in Houla district, in which at least 108 people were killed on May 25, monitors found howitzer shells. Only the government has heavy weapons, leading Ladsous to say that the finger of responsibility pointed “ever so clearly to ... the government”.
Ill feeling towards the monitors is not limited to the government, though.
First welcomed by downtrodden Syrians as the messengers of their plight to the outside world, the monitors are resented by some opposition members who say their presence, far from curbing the violence, has inflamed it.
“Really, the people of Syria want the monitors to leave,” said activist Abo Adnan, from the city of Hama, where forces loyal to Assad have pounded opposition districts with mortar bombs and tank shells for months. “There is more killing and more shelling since they arrived.”
Abo Adnan, like many opposition figures, says the monitors have been followed everywhere by security forces who later return to punish people who complain of army atrocities.
“When the monitors came in April, there were no massacres. Now we have massacres,” he said, adding that the monitors rarely ventured into the heart of the most battered districts of Hama, and often did not bring Arabic-speakers with them.
“They don’t listen to us. They just say ‘Yes, yes, yes’.”
U.N. Security Council members said Syria’s allies Russia and China would not allow an armed mission to enforce peace actively. Instead, monitors have played a more passive role, reporting on clashes without interfering.
Chief monitor Major General Robert Mood is due to brief the Security Council on Tuesday.
Even U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the monitors were being blamed for an increase in violence, and that high expectations had not been satisfied.
“There is a misconception, difficult to correct, about the role of unarmed military observers and what they can and cannot do,” he said. “This puts the United Nations presence on the ground in a perilous position.”
In cases such as Houla‘s, the opposition concedes that the monitors have gone some way to exposing government actions, but say that benefit is overshadowed by the dangers they bring.
The United Nations says more than 10,000 people have been killed by Assad’s forces in 15 months of rebellion. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collates reports of violence, points to more than 2,000 killed since the monitors arrived in April.
“The monitors came here to see that the peace plan is implemented but that wasn’t achieved,” said Abu Yazen, an opposition activist from central Homs.
“On the contrary, we now have massacres and more shelling.”
Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman for the monitors, said the anger and frustration were understandable when Syrians were suffering, adding:
“Our observers - all 300 - are unarmed. Their security, the security of the mission as a whole ... is the responsibility of the Syrian parties.”
For now, the monitors are staying in their hotels.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Kevin Liffey